A Journalist Studies His Boyhood Block, and Finds a Wild History

Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Streets. Photo by Laurence Beckhardt.

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a recent post by Caitlin Hawke, who blogs about the Upper West Side area known as Bloomingdale on the website of the W. 102nd & 103rd Streets Block Association.

By Caitlin Hawke

A little over a year and a half back, thanks to the W. 102nd & 103rd Streets Block Association blog, I received a message from New York Times journalist and editor, Daniel J. Wakin. Virtually a lifelong Bloomingdaler with the exception of two stints abroad for the Times, Dan told me he had a book in the works about our neighborhood that he was researching. I was captivated by his conceit: to bring to life the seven buildings along Riverside Drive between W. 105th and 106th Streets by telling the tales of the people who lived there.

Many people know that Duke Ellington lived for a time at 333 Riverside with his sister Ruth and his music company was based there as well. His son Mercer lived next door at 334. This explains the origins of Duke Ellington Boulevard, aka W. 106th Street.

While some of the characters of this beautiful block were known to me (Julia Marlowe, Marion Davies, Saul Bellow), I’d never heard of Bennie the Bum — Bernard McMahon — a bootlegger who worked with Legs Diamond and holed up right here at 334 Riverside Drive with a maimed knee after a $428,000 cash heist from an armored car at the Rubel Ice Company. Given the title of Dan’s book, I will leave to your imagination what becomes of Bennie.  But let’s just say he never had much use for boots again.

I wrote a little about Dan’s book “The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block” here, and Dan kindly agreed to sit down with me for an interview just as his book was set to publish on January 23. What follows is my exchange with this son of Bloomingdale.

Caitlin Hawke: I know you grew up on W. 106th and then moved away. So, can one go home again?
Dan Wakin: You can if home is an amazing, variegated, vibrant neighborhood in a city that half the world wants to come home to. Can you go home again to your childhood house? Yes, with emotional complications.

I was born in 1961, moved away for college and returned to the neighborhood after graduation. I lived on 109th and Amsterdam then 113th between Amsterdam and Broadway (commuting to Newark, N.J., where I was covering the federal courts). I was then assigned in 1992 as a correspondent to the Rome bureau of The Associated Press, spent six years there and then became news editor for southern Africa, based in Johannesburg. We moved back to my childhood home on W. 106th in 2000.

Dan Wakin. Photo by Laurence Beckhardt.

Caitlin: What appeals to you about the neighborhood and how did you deal with returning to your childhood home to live as adult?
Dan: I like living in a neighborhood that is a place people come home to after work, but is still a truly commercial, vibrant, urban scene with big institutions and diverse populations. It’s both cul-de-sac and destination, a zone apart yet a hub of its own. It’s a fundamentally unpretentious place that will never successfully put on airs, where comfortable dowdiness and frayed elegance exist side by side with tenement life, strivers and college students. Riverside Park is our back yard and you can see the river, a reminder of our island city status. (Peace, Bronx.) Sadly though, many of the apartments are way beyond the means of middle class people. By neighborhood I’m talking RSD to CPW and 96th to 116th.

I solved the melancholy of nostalgia for my childhood by reveling in the great life my boys were making for themselves as they grew up here.

Caitlin: Yes, I size you up as a fairly nostalgic person. That can be a dirty word in the boom-boom times of NYC real estate. Do you really think of yourself as nostalgic – even for a day that preceded your time on earth such as the times you write about in your book?
Dan: I wouldn’t say I’m a nostalgic person. As journalists, we’re very un-nostalgic – always looking for the new or the unknown or the unrevealed. But I do have a strain of nostalgia, which helped make this book something of an escape from the day-to-day. And I do feel pangs when a favorite store or building disappears. Then, when I realize how quickly you forget those old places, and the new becomes part of the scenery, I realize I’m not as nostalgic as I thought. Development vs. preservation is one of the major storylines of New York City. I’m not an activist nor an investor, but an observer fascinated by the duet. I also love sunlight and air and historical rootedness. Often when I think about wanting to live in another time on earth, I wallow briefly but then I think back to how lousy it was for large classes of people and then I’m not so nostalgic.

Caitlin: How do you feel about the changing architectural profile of the UWS?  
Dan: This is hard to answer – the development on Columbus Avenue in the high 90s is so different from the high rises popping up in the 70s and 80s, for example. The architectural profile of the UWS has always seemed a glorious corned-beef hash to me. Some glass towers in the mix are not terrible. Though I’d hate to lose all the tax-payers on Broadway.

Caitlin:  What do you miss most in the neighborhood from the time you were growing up?
Dan: Again, hard to answer. I was a kid then, and an adult now. Those are two very different kinds of people. If I can project myself into childhood now, I’d say I’d miss the passel of kids that hung around on the sidewalk after school or during the summer and played street games or demonstrated an enjoyable idleness.

Caitlin: Let’s talk a little about your book. I wanted to congratulate you on the publication. It reads to me as very much as an ode to Bloomingdale, and in particular to that beautiful block of Riverside Drive from 105th to 106th Street.
Dan: Thank you!

Caitlin: You gave a standing-room-only talk on January 17 for the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group, and something struck me: you showed very few pictures of the bricks and mortar. This book is not an architectural romp through time, it’s about the flesh and bones that inhabited these grand buildings over a certain era.
Dan: Yes, good point. I am deeply fascinated by this stark contrast: between permanent structures of brick and stone, eternally there, standing in the same spots from my childhood to my middle age to long after I’m gone, and the countless generations of human beings who have lived, died and disappeared from memory inside those walls. Soft, evanescent flesh vs. hard, permanent bricks. Memories, stories, experiences vs. urban topography with its own meaning.

Caitlin: Yes, what a wonderful idea to dig into the insides of buildings. We tend to fixate on the exteriors since we can access the architectural and construction details more easily. What historical, governmental, archival or other records did you find most useful for the physical history of the buildings?
Dan: The City Register, Department of Buildings web sites, The Real Estate Record (at Columbia University and online) and newspaper electronic archives.

Caitlin: And for the personal histories of the “characters”?
Dan: Private archives, published memoirs, corporate histories, court and government records, census records, city directories.

Caitlin: What was the hardest part of getting to the people who inhabited or passed through your buildings?
Dan: Except for famous names like Duke Ellington and Marion Davies, they were not quite at the level of fame to have much preserved about them or biographies written. Although I was just contacted by a researcher – after my book was published – who said there is an unpublished memoir by Lothar Faber, of the pencil family, that mentions 335 RSD!! Oh well.

Caitlin: Yes, you have to eventually go to press. But I know what you’ll be reading soon! So what most eluded you or bedeviled you in your research? And what darlings did you have to kill for lack of flesh you were able to recreate?
Dan: Some of the characters were just not super fascinating. I mean, how many of us are? I’m bedeviled by the feeling that if I had just spent more time digging, scrounging, reading, etc., I could have provided a fleshier picture. But you have to cut off the hunt sometime. Biggest footage on the cutting room floor is more detail about the works of the poor artist Michael De Santis, who painted portraits of Columbia professors and died destitute, a boarder at 337 RSD. I left out details of my mini-tour of the sites where his pictures remain, and the paintings that Columbia has in storage, and efforts to restore some of them. My smart editor also had me cut excessive detail about minor criminal characters. The cast of extras just got too large.

Caitlin: So which of the “Seven Beauties” is your favorite on the outside?  And which had the best characters on the inside?
Dan: River Mansion at 337 Riverside Drive. I feel a real connection from my childhood, because I grew up a few doors away from it. In some weird way, I connected it with Miss Havisham’s house from “Great Expectations,” a book I loved growing up. It’s also the most interesting building of the bunch, with the stark contrast between the limestone ornamentation and red brick.

Caitlin: I agree and having lived right next to it, I often imagined how beautiful it must be inside. So who were the best characters in your research?
Dan: Marion Davies who lived at 331 Riverside was a live wire. Michael De Santis, the artist, in 337 Riverside makes me feel melancholy. And the gangsters of 334, of course, are the juiciest.

Caitlin: And of all the people you researched, who do you most wish you could hang out at Henry’s with for a beer and an interview?
Dan: That would be Jokichi Takamine, the Japanese scientist who overcame opposition from rivals and anti-Japanese sentiment and isolated adrenaline. How could he fire his mother-in-law, who helped set him up in the U.S., as president of his company? How did he feel living three doors away from the mistress of the man [newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst] whose newspapers so atrociously whipped up fears of the “yellow peril?” Is it true he denied partial credit for his adrenaline discovery to his long-suffering assistant?

Let me also say that meeting one of the great musical figures in American culture – Duke Ellington – would be incredible. And I’m sure Henry’s would have been particularly delighted to have him there.

Caitlin: Yes!  The ghost of Birdland would approve, too.  So as we near the end of our interview, I wondered if you would reflect.  Your book focuses on a pretty tiny slice of New York City. Does it tell us anything about the city as a whole?

Dan: I think it does. You could dig deep into lots of individual blocks in New York and find some pretty interesting stories. But the mix of people in these particular townhouses really does get at the essence of what makes the city so great. Here you have manufacturers from a century ago who made stuff we still use today living next to actors, writers, builders, inventors and a gang hideout. They all came to this place to make a buck or make a mark, and did it living shoulder to shoulder. Surely their paths crossed directly, and sometimes without them even knowing it. That amazing mix is really the essence of New York. And we living in this town are all part of that mix, and can rightfully claim that history as our history. Gangsters? Inventors? Famous actors? Heiresses? Indigent artists? They’re all just our neighbors.

Caitlin: With this book and your NYT byline, you’ve now left a trail of electronic breadcrumbs for a future researcher to write about at least one of inhabitants of your building. Can you give me some stories that a researcher could never find about your family, growing up on W. 106th, the mark you hope you’ll have left?
Dan: At this point, I’ll retreat to the journalist’s stance and say I’d rather tell the story than be part of the story. But thanks for asking!

Caitlin: OK, so “Game On!” for the next generation of researchers. Many thanks both for your time and for giving Bloomingdalers this great new source. I don’t go by those buildings anymore without thinking of Legs Diamond’s boy Bennie the Bum, Bellow, baking powder, and the Duke.

Note: If you are interested in encountering these long-gone neighbors of yore, grab Dan’s book here. It’s a wonderful read for anyone who loves to imagine both what lies behind these beautiful facades and, of course, who came before us. Dan will be speaking at Book Culture, 536 West 112th St. on Tuesday night starting at 7 p.m.

HISTORY | 3 comments | permalink
    1. Manhattan Mark says:

      It’s great to see the neigberhood I spent the first 22 years of my life highlighted on the WSR. My years there were 1937 to 1959. I saw the changes from prewar to war to postwar…It was a united local population. I lived on 105th street between WEA&RSD. on the north corner of RSD was a mansion that was a mystery… we never knew who lived there or if anyone lived there. As teens we played stickball on 106th St. it was a 3sewer block, as we got older the object was not about who won the game, but who could hit 3 sewers and then the object became who could hit the horse’s ass on a fly of the statue that was facing RSD. There’s so much more to tell, but little time now…to be continued.

    2. Manhattan Mark, I completely agree with Kindly Dr Dave and would love to interview you for the 102-103 Streets blog. I’d noted your comments earlier about Hudes Deli on 103rd and Broadway. If you’d like to start a conversation about our fondness for Bloomingdale, please contact me: blog@w102-103blockassn.org